Song of the Shank

Song of the Shank

by Jeffery Renard Allen


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A contemporary American masterpiece about music, race, an unforgettable man, and an unreal America during the Civil War era

At the heart of this remarkable novel is Thomas Greene Wiggins, a nineteenth-century slave and improbable musical genius who performed under the name Blind Tom.

Song of the Shank opens in 1866 as Tom and his guardian, Eliza Bethune, struggle to adjust to their fashionable apartment in the city in the aftermath of riots that had driven them away a few years before. But soon a stranger arrives from the mysterious island of Edgemere—inhabited solely by African settlers and black refugees from the war and riots—who intends to reunite Tom with his now-liberated mother.

As the novel ranges from Tom's boyhood to the heights of his performing career, the inscrutable savant is buffeted by opportunistic teachers and crooked managers, crackpot healers and militant prophets. In his symphonic novel, Jeffery Renard Allen blends history and fantastical invention to bring to life a radical cipher, a man who profoundly changes all who encounter him.

Editorial Reviews

Asked about Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor said, "Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down." Toni Morrison stayed on the rails, learned some things about ghost stories from Faulkner, and wrote her southern masterpiece Beloved. Now another African-American novelist, Jeffery Renard Allen, has published a historical novel with the subject matter, ambition, and some of the techniques of "the Dixie Limited." Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury begins with the narration of an "idiot," the cognitively impaired Benjy Compson, and the rest of the novel tests its characters by how they respond to his helplessness. At the center of Song of the Shank is a blind slave, Thomas Wiggins, whom several characters call an "idiot" because of his spastic movements and obscure utterances. In fact — in the novel and in American history — Wiggins was a musical prodigy and recall savant who toured the world as Blind Tom, amazing mid-nineteenth-century audiences by playing sophisticated compositions and reciting difficult texts (in languages he didn't know!) from memory.

Song of the Shank could have been a sentimental song of the South, custom-made for Oprah or the big screen. But like Faulkner, Allen uses multiple points of view — more than the three that follow Benjy's section — and shifts in both time and space to make his book as complex as his Tom is enigmatic. To ease readers into this long and fractured work, I'll describe in chronological order the narrative that emerges. Tom was born in 1848 or 1849 to a slave family in Columbus, Georgia. After he blinds himself as an infant, Tom is "free" — to roam his owner's estate, much to the distress of his mother, Charity, who attempts to understand with her limited vocabulary the behavior of the child she calls "curious," both odd and fascinated by strange sensory experiences. (A century later, neurologist Oliver Sacks characterized Tom as having been autistic.) When toddler-age Tom displays astonishing talents on his owner's piano, he becomes even more of a mystery to his family but is quickly recognized as a social and economic asset by his master, General Bethune. Allen's Bethune is, himself, an oddity: a slaveholder and rabid secessionist who condescends to his dirty-handed "planter" neighbors. But as a newspaper publisher, he recognizes a new value of bonded labor — entertainment.

ifjbkfbkfmbkfmbkfmb Bethune leases Tom to one Perry Oliver, a white impresario. Ripped from familiar surroundings, Tom goes into a funk that Oliver's adolescent assistant, Seven, manages to penetrate — with, for the time, poignant displays of empathy for the fearful boy who sits in a corner and soils himself. But like Charity, Seven knows he lacks the "words" to fathom Tom, a meta-linguistic theme that Allen extends throughout the novel to include scientists, clergymen, and even himself. Although Tom eventually accepts training from a music professor, Oliver promotes Tom as an untutored prodigy and rakes in enormous profits from his tours, on which the child amazes and then amuses with his shouted claims, like the young Muhammad Ali's, that he is the "greatest."

Allen does not flinch from the inconvenient facts that young Tom has no use for "niggers," may not understand he's a Negro, and does not realize his concerts help fund Bethune's secessionist cause. In the terms of another great African-American novelist, Tom is highly visible to others who are invisible to him, and he is largely invisible to himself. The Latin root of prodigy meant "omen." Allen keeps the contemporary relevance of his historical entertainer mostly implicit but occasionally uses anachronistic phrases — such as the epithet "half man, half amazing," applied recently to the musician Nas and the basketball star Vince Carter — to give Song of the Shank a predictive quality.

After Bethune reclaims Tom from his manager in 1862, Song of the Shank begins to depart from the facts of Thomas Wiggins's life. Allen invents a period of miscegenation when Tom lives quite happily with Eliza, the young widow of Bethune's son, Sharpe. The lyricism of Eliza's point of view recalls the poetic qualities of sensitive Quentin's section in The Sound and the Fury. Like Tom's mother, Eliza has more feeling for Tom's body and sensibility than the men who have manipulated him, but unable to care for and protect Tom, she surrenders him to an African-American man named Tabbs Gross.

In the second half of the novel, Allen's methods separate into two opposite extremes. He incorporates documentary history — the Civil War Draft Riots targeting blacks in New York City, the suffering of free black refugees from the South in the city after the war — but he also imagines an alternative space, an island not far from New York that he calls Edgemere, where displaced blacks live and where Allen has Gross arrange Tom's reunion with his mother (another counterfactual event). Gross hopes to use Charity's influence to bring Tom back out on tour, to present him not as a person "touched" by God or as a "freak" of nature but as a representative of black humanity and potential, an unusual symbol of uplift. Part "Race man," part con man, Gross dominates the book's second half.

Also on Edgemere, a setting vaguely African, are other black characters — such as the highly articulate Reverend Wire and his fiery deacon, Double — who discuss the best responses to their dispossession and the plight of southern refugees. Like some early version of Michael Jackson, Tom is uncertainly above or below such interests, but his possible future with Gross remains the plot hook on which Allen can hang his political discussions, which sound like arguments between Martin Luther King Jr. and more militant civil rights leaders of the 1960s.

The action of the novel ends in 1869 with a cross-dressing escape like that in Uncle Tom's Cabin and a romance with no historical basis. Thomas Wiggins, though, lived on: he was judged insane in 1872, made sporadic appearances afterward, disappeared from public view for many years, and was rumored dead long before his death in 1908. Allen has said he began Song of the Shank as a fictionalized biography of Wiggins but changed the novel's form and focus after reading about the Draft Riots. I understand his interest in those events and see the parallel between the continued mistreatment of the emancipated Tom and free blacks in the North, but why Allen altered numerous and essential facts of his protagonist's life is unclear. At the novel's end, his changes made me wonder if the real Thomas Wiggins was again being exploited, this time by a novelist who wanted a conventional conclusion and rounded form despite his work's initial rebellion against traditional storytelling. In the last sections, the now grown character Seven manages a copycat prodigy he bills as "The Original Blind Tom." With this subplot, Allen, who has a Ph.D. in literature, may be implying the once trendy deconstructive idea that there are no originals, only a precession of simulacra. But in "fact" — a word, like "words," that recurs again and again in the novel — Thomas Wiggins lived a longer, more complicated, and unhappier life than Allen chooses to present.

In an interview a few years ago, Allen complained that in the United States African-American novelists are always compared with other African-American writers. He wants to be seen in relation to white, as well as black, writers and mentions the influence of W. G. Sebald. This is most explicit in Song of the Shank in the facsimiles of printed documents, photographs, and puzzling geometrical designs that Allen includes, but also evident in his treatment of historical "fact" as suppositional and fiction, like the managers' deceptive promotion of Tom, as a game. Even when Allen has a character intuit another's feelings or meditate on her own existence — the binding strengths of this intensely psychological novel — Allen may drop in a quote from a source the character could not know — the Bible, T. S. Eliot, Dante, Lincoln, Shakespeare, Hughes, Obama, and probably others I missed — to suggest that the game in Song of the Shank is bi- level or bi-temporal, Reconstruction lives being reconstructed by a twenty-first-century author. Sebald uses similar Brechtian alienation effects, but some readers may find that the technique disrupts an emotional response to the novel's situations.

Tom himself is the ultimate disrupter of narration, communication, and emotional predictability. When audiences expect him to sit quietly before the piano, he twirls onstage. When his managers think he will play, he sits under the piano and refuses to move. When his caretakers believe they are finally communicating with Tom, he issues some irrelevant or unexpected or cruel remark. Here is one of his conversations with Seven:

The best bread comes from the flesh, Tom says.
Tom, what are you gabbering about? I dread hearing you go on like that.
The book speaks like a nigger, Tom says.
Seven doesn't have the slightest idea what Tom has in mind.
Jesus speaks like a nigger, Tom says. The Hebrews speak like niggers.
Seven doesn't know the source for this sudden religious outpouring, although it is not unusual for Tom to slap the mind awake with some sudden nonsensical statement.
Seven fails to realize that Tom dislikes religious music, which may be the cause of this particular mind-slap. Although Allen doesn't claim that Tom's persistent inappropriateness is his willed response to expropriation, Tom could be more canny than his intimates believe. First there was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Christ-like Tom, then Richard Wright's naturalistic Bigger Thomas in Native Son. In Song of the Shank we could have what the African-American critic Henry Louis Gates called a "signifying monkey," a trickster Tom who seems simple-minded but may use that perception to mock and resist those who would control him, both whites and blacks. As Faulkner knew about Benjy, it would be impossible to keep Tom on the novel's stage all of the time, so Allen gives most of his space to those around Tom. But I still think Allen loses opportunities for cultural critique, such as the court battles about Tom's guardianship and his sanity, by altering and foreshortening his biography.

Song of the Shank may well be a great book. Given its materials and methods, I wanted it to be grand or even grandiose, like Absalom, Absalom! — which I hope explains my desire above for more, for prodigiousness from this work about a prodigy. Song of the Shank will almost certainly be widely read. It has multiple appeals: it tells a story of unjust victimization, combines several familiar subgenres — the syndrome novel (think Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn), the biopic (McBride's The Good Lord Bird), the alternative history (Reed's Mumbo Jumbo) — and doesn't burden readers with period styles. But I find Allen's first novel, Rails under My Back, published in 2000, even more interesting, more Faulknerian, and I hope readers will try its challenges after finishing Song of the Shank. Tracing the gnarled histories of two contemporary African- American families in (mostly) a city that resembles Chicago, Rails under My Back has intricacies ironed out of Song of the Shank, plots that Allen feels no need to resolve, some characters almost as odd as Tom, urban grit and street cred, as well as a range of vernaculars like those in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.

The following passage from Song of the Shank indirectly describes its disruptive energy, but the passage even more accurately represents the Faulknerian abundance of Rails under My Back:
Tom plays with a powerful joy, a melody played too fast or too slow. It's got things that shouldn't be in there, foreign tones, melodies taking wrong turns, bass notes darkening passages that should be clear, chords with so many notes they cancel any understanding, foot hand allowing chords to resonate and invade where they shouldn't, a deliberate display of excess, of error, of noise, Tom having his way?.
The passage is about Tom practicing. In his scripted public performances, Thomas Wiggins was the prisoner of "The Blind Tom Exhibition" and its largely classical repertoire. In the jazz riffs, blues lines, gospel shouts, rock solos, and rap ditties of Rails under My Back, Allen takes full and joyful advantage of his artistic freedom from historical fact. Together with his book of stories, Holding Pattern, Song of the Shank and Rails under My Back give us a new Yoknatapawpha that extends in space from the Deep South to the dense North and in time from slave days to hip-hop nights. If Faulkner was the Dixie Limited, Jeffery Renard Allen is an American Express.

Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, two critical books, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated periodicals. He can be reached at

Reviewer: Tom LeClair

The New York Times Book Review - Mitchell S. Jackson

…Jeffery Renard Allen's masterly new novel…sagely explores themes of religion, class, art and genius, and introduces elements of magic realism…resulting in the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce…one of [Allen's] immense gifts is his skill at imagining his characters' piquant voices, the most memorable of which belongs to his protagonist…Song of the Shank brilliantly portrays the story of Blind Tom while providing keen insight into the history of Reconstruction.

From the Publisher

[A] masterly new novel. . . . It sagely explores themes of religion, class, art and genius, and introduces elements of magic realism . . . resulting in the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.” —The New York Times Book Review (front cover)

“Allen's elaborate novel unfurls like a tapestry, its minutely detailed tableaux illustrating the vast, unhealed bruise of American racism.” —The Boston Globe

“Powerfully evokes the life of the 19th-century slave and enigmatic musical savant, Blind Tom.” —Vanity Fair

“Epic and brilliant. . . . [Allen's] unhurried and unconventional novel is a celebration of an utterly unique American artist.” —The Los Angeles Times

“Inventive, earthy, lyrical, demanding, rewarding. . . . There are echoes . . . in this potential Great American Novel of past masters Faulkner, Hemingway, Ellison, Melville, John Edgar Wideman, Ishmael Reed.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Beautiful. . . . [Allen's] style is at once dense and spare—his prose poetic and heavily evocative.” —Chicago Tribune

“An eerie fever dream of a historical novel. . . . [Allen] carries the resources of the poet and the psychic in his trick bag.” —Bookforum

“[An] explosive vanguard novel . . . a chilling orphic drama full of polyrhythmic shakers and shells. . . . A landmark of modern African-American literature. . . . Reading through this sagacious volume is like stumbling on a crooked monument covered in celestial carvings, something that aims for the stars and ends up reconfiguring constellations.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“If there's any justice, Allen's visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject's performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“[A] delightful literary gem.” —Essence

“[A] sprawling, Faulknerian work of fiction.” —The Kansas City Star

“In the extraordinarily talented hands of Allen, Tom is a mysterious and compelling figure. . . . [A] tour de force. . . . A brilliant book, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner.” —Booklist, starred review

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2014-05-15
One of America’s most gifted novelists projects dark and daring speculations upon the incredible-but-true 19th-century story of a child piano prodigy who was blind, autistic and a slave.In the waning years of antebellum slavery, a rapidly fracturing America was introduced to a stunning musical phenomenon: Thomas Wiggins, a young black slave from Georgia known only as “Blind Tom,” who “sounded out” his first piano composition at age 5 and, five years later, was famous enough to play before President James Buchanan at the White House. What made Tom even more remarkable was that he was both blind and autistic, thus compounding audiences’ astonishment at his extraordinary ability to not only perform classical works, but to spontaneously weave startling variations on American folk ditties into original musical tapestries. Because most of the details of Wiggins' story have been lost to history, there are many blank, enigmatic spaces to fill. Chicago-born Allen (Holding Pattern,2008, etc.) assumes the imaginative writer’s task of improvising shape and depth where elusive or missing facts should be. What results from his effort is an absorbing, haunting narrative that begins a year after the Civil War ends when Tom, a teenager, and his white guardian, Eliza Bethune, arrive in a nameless northern city (presumably New York), where they are contacted by a black man who intends to reunite Tom with his newly liberated mother. The story rebounds back to Tom’s childhood, during which he struggles to feel his surroundings despite his compromised senses and finds his only warmth (literally) beneath the piano belonging to Eliza’s slaveholding family. Allen’s psychological insight and evocative language vividly bring to life all the black and white people in Tom’s life who, in seeking to understand or exploit Tom’s unholy gifts, are both transformed and transfixed by his inscrutable, resolutely self-contained personality.If there’s any justice, Allen’s visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject’s performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555976804
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 06/17/2014
Pages: 608
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Song of the Shank

A Novel

By Jeffery Renard Allen


Copyright © 2014 Jeffery Renard Allen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-680-4


Traveling Underground(1866)

* * *

"Light is the exception."

SHE COMES OUT OF THE HOUSE AND SEES FRESH SHAPES IN the grass, a geometrical warning she does not understand. Blades mashed down under a foot, half-digested clots of earth where shoe heels have bitten in, mutilated worms spiking up through regurgitated blackness—piecemeal configurations, suggesting a man's shoe, two, large, like Tom's but not Tom's since Tom never wears shoes in the country. A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long lost—three years? four?—"Blind Tom"—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). She has grown accustomed to such intrusion, knows how to navigate around pointed questions and accusations. (Ignore the bell. Deny any insistent knock on the door and that voice on the other side, tongue and fist filled with demands. Speak calmly through the wood, polite but brief. Use any excuse to thwart their facts and assumptions. No matter what, don't open the door.) Yet no one has called upon them their entire summer here in the country, those many months up until now, summer's end. This can only mean that the journalists have changed their strategy, resorted to underhanded tactics and methods, sly games, snooping and spying, hoping to catch Tom (her) out in the open, guard down, unaware, a thought that eases her worry some until it strikes her that no newspaperman has ever come here before in all the years—four? five?—that they've had this summer home. Alarm breaks the surface of her body, astonished late afternoon skin, all the muscles waking up. Where is Tom? Someone has stolen him, taken him away from her at last. She calls out to him. Tom! Her voice trails off. She stands there, all eyes, peering into the distance, the limb-laced edge of the afternoon, seeing nothing except Nature, untamed land without visible limits. The sky arches cleanly overhead, day pouring out in brightness across the lawn, this glittering world, glareless comfort in the sole circle of shade formed by her straw hat. Tom! She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll's house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a stripped and worn tongue. Nevertheless, a (summer) home. To hold her and Tom. It stands isolate in a clearing surrounded by hundreds of acres of woods. Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face. The trees accept the invitation. Take two steps forward, light sparkling on every leaf. The nearest a dozen yards, a distance she knows by heart. Deep green with elusive shadings. Green holding her gaze. Green masking possible intruders (thieves). She must move, have a look around. No way out of it. Takes up a stout branch and holds it in front of her in defense, uselessly fierce. Even with her makeshift weapon she doubts her own capacities. Look at her tiny hands, her small frame, the heavy upholstery of her dress. But the light changes, seems to bend to the will of her instincts, lessening in intensity. (Swears she hears it buzz and snap.) She starts out through the grass—Tom keeps the lawn low and neat, never permitting the grass to rise higher than the ankles—her feet unexpectedly alert and flexible across the soft ground under her stabbing heels, no earthly sense of body. Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods? It is later than she realized, darkness slowly advancing through the trees, red light hemorrhaging out, a gentle radiance reddening her hair and hands. Still enough illumination for a more thorough search. No timepiece on her person—her heavy silver watch left behind on the bedroom bureau—but she's certain that it's already well past Tom's customary hour of return, sundown, when Tom grows hurried and fearful, quick to make it indoors, as if he knows that the encroaching dark seeks to swallow him up, dark skin, dark eyes.

Had she missed the signs earlier? What has she done the entire day other than get some shut-eye? (A catalog of absent hours.) Imagine a woman of a mere twenty-five years sleeping the day away. (She is the oldest twenty-five-year-old in the world.) After Tom quit the house, she spent the morning putting away the breakfast dishes, gathering up this and that, packing luggage, orbiting through a single constellation of activities—labor sets its own schedule and pace—only to return to her room and seat herself on the bed, shod feet planted against the floor, palms folded over knees, watching the minute lines of green veins flowing along the back of her hands, Eliza contemplating what else she might do about the estate, lost in meditation so that she would not have to think about returning to the city, a longing and a fear. She dreaded telling Tom that this would be their last week in the country but knowing from experience that she must tell him, slow and somber, letting the words take, upon his return to the house for lunch; only fair that she give him a full week to digest the news, vent his feelings—in whatever shape and form—and yield.

It takes considerable focus for her to summon up sufficient will and guilt to start out on a second search. Where should she begin? A thousand acres or more. Why not examine the adjoining structures—a toolshed, outhouse, and smokehouse lingering like afterthoughts behind the house, and a barn that looks exactly like the house, only in miniature, like some architect's model, early draft. She comes around the barn—the horse breathing behind the stall in hay-filled darkness, like a nervous actor waiting to take the stage—dress hem swaying against her ankles, only to realize that she has lost her straw hat. A brief survey pinpoints it a good distance away, nesting in a ten-foot-high branch. She starts for it—how will she reach that high?—when she feels a hand suddenly on her shoulder, Tom's warm hand—Miss Eliza?—turning her back toward the house, erasing (marking?) her body, her skin unnaturally pale despite a summer of steady exposure, his the darkest of browns. (His skin has a deeper appetite for light than most.) He has been having his fun with her, playing possum—he moves from tree to tree—his lips quivering with excitement, smiling white teeth popping out of pink mouth. Tom easy to spot really, rising well over six feet, his bulky torso looming insect-like, out of proportion to his head, arms, and legs—what the three years' absence from the stage has given him: weight; each month brings five pounds here, another five pounds there, symmetrical growth; somewhere the remembered slim figure of a boy now locked inside this seventeen-year-old (her estimation) portly body of a man—his clothes shoddy after hours of roughing it in the country—an agent of Nature—his white shirt green-and brown-smeared with bark and leaf stains.

He turns her fingers palm up like a palmist reading her hand. Pulls and leads her back to the front door of the house, bypassing the back entrance. Because his eyes are lidded over, all the energy in his face is in mouth and jaw. (Eyes are globes that map the feelings of the face.) He grasps the door handle as if it is a butterfly—delicately, barely touching it with his fingers—pushes the door open, and with a great show of strength turns to carry her inside, lifting her high above the ground, overestimating, throwing her face momentarily into his black cap of kinky hair. She hooks both arms around his thick neck, ringed with sweat, for the ride. Her body against his, she can feel his heart beating rapidly beneath his damp shirt. In fact, he's exhausted, struggling for breath. Something vulnerable about his features, a child's earnestness in his unknowing blind face, which gives to his obesity the suggestion of exposure rather than strength, more unaware flesh available for ambush. He takes time to wipe the bottom of his feet against the hemp doormat, one foot after the other, again and again, Eliza stilled in air. They flutter in. He almost drops her when he is setting her down. In the act of balancing she detects a faint scent in the room, the smell of tobacco. Someone has been in the house. Might still be in the house. She latches the door while Tom, sensing nothing, dizzy with the scent of pollen on his hands, grass on his feet, whistling—always a tune buried under his breath—hurries over to the piano—his feet slide like dry leaves over the carpeted floor—which squats like a large black toad in the sitting room. He takes a seat on the bench, removes his hankie from his back pocket, and cleans his face. Returns the hankie and brings his hands to the keyboard, his long fingers fanning out in excitement. Begins playing, his routine, discipline of pleasure. She sets off to inspect potential hiding places, twenty rooms of ample size, upper and lower, sets off, charged by fear she doesn't dare feel. How quietly she goes above the music rising up from downstairs; she feels lighthearted, competent, in a situation she knows she can handle. Could be a burglar sneaking through some unsuspecting person's house, increasingly confident and safe, her pendular breathing causing her to believe that she is only moments behind the intruder, just short of reckoning. A feeling quickly dispelled. Expecting everything, finding nothing. Looking through glass, she scans the jagged red-lit landscape impressed upon her mind with the sudden violence of a dream, all those yellows greens and browns separate parts of something, no longer the stable signs of summer sanctuary but disjointed hostile eruptions. She feels even more the need to leave the country at the earliest opportunity, tomorrow or the next day at the latest. Hard to imagine putting off their return to the city. Something real ahead.

Downstairs again, satisfied with her search—check the latches, front and back—safe and sound for now, she settles down on the settee, Tom twenty feet away from her at the piano, his face directed at the ceiling with the height-bound music, his hands chasing one another squirrel-like over the keyboard, Eliza turning speculations about the unknown intruder, mind spinning down to concentrate on her own slowing pulse, buried sense, the music relegated to the edge of awareness as she sits face to face with the fact of herself in this red-bright room filled with handsome well-crafted furniture and plump well-stitched upholstery, light making the objects look incongruous and absurd, lurching in and out of focus like this countryside that lurches in and out of her (their) life with the seasons. She wants to get back to the city, to her (their) apartment. A strong drive to part with this place for good, sever all seasonal ties. Easier now for her to entertain the thought of year-round residence in the city. Everything in between their apartment and this house a mistake. Torn (her) from the city each summer, they holiday here because there is little risk of entanglement, danger from others, the house far beyond the usual hunting grounds. Not that she is not trying to keep them hidden, keep Tom underground.

The facts trip her up. (What she does not say is clearest.) Forced to admit, the city is ideal for her, but not for Tom. Would she dare live here in the country? A city girl her entire life, she's not sure she's cut out for the countryside. All that harmony and light. Greenness pulling through the leaves. And flowers blooming out in the heavy humidity of the air, growing things too colorful to look at but nevertheless created beautiful for the delight of man. Scents and nectars and fruits that act as attractive guides for insects. She cannot get her mind around the idea of Nature, Barmecidal feast. Too much to take in. The promised primal power and purity of the elements—fresh air to clear the head, space for the body, rest and reclamation—rarefied to a degree that eludes her senses. There is nothing she desires to map, mount, or measure. So who she is in the country is unclear. Tom's safety is not reason enough to stay. End of story.

Or is it? The morality is ever changing. (At cross-purposes with herself.) She gets caught in all the choices. What's bound to happen? What might happen? What should happen? The questions cast long shadows that do not disappear.

She watches as if from a watery distance, a red-tinted vista, dusk besetting the edges of body and piano, profile opening, redefining the boundaries between ivory and skin, muscle and wood. Tom is signaling her, white and black flags moving under his brown fingers, as if he can sense her rigid unresponsiveness—is she holding her breath?—and is determined to break her out of it. This bounteous act, premature calls floating around her. She casts out—what precedes what—to meet them, drawing to herself many points of sound, many others lost, breath held to slow down the reeling in, that which is brought back heard singly (as should be?). What a pleasant feeling to find (sense) her person in an upright position, rebodied, flesh again in a distinct sort of way, no longer just a sleeping form, but a working one, thinking, planning, and organizing, fields clearing in her mind. The sound growing there says too much. She feels it—pinching the keys—in her mouth, teeth, tongue, and gums. She wants to curtail it. Can't. Her mood rising with each minute. Uplifted. All this music he gives only to her. She's no expert, but he seems to play better than ever, no part of the force lost, his three-year hiatus from the stage hurting him none. He could step back under the spotlight tomorrow and simply pick up where he left off and then some, his past performance mere dress rehearsal for his prime. All that music still, "Blind Tom" preserved. Words prepared, she wants to tell him right then that they will be leaving tomorrow, but the music chases the idea of departure from her head for the moment. (After dinner, tell him after dinner.)

The splintered edges of a voice. Is Tom singing? No. Speaking her name—Miss Eliza—clearly and cleanly in a way pleasant to hear, the play of a smile around his mouth.

Yes, Tom?

Lait, please.

She gets up from the settee to honor his request, walks down the long tunnel of hall to the kitchen filled with the odor of meat—blood congealed in the cracks and the lined spaces where the floor joins—music following her. Pulls the pantry open (hinges creaking) and enters the cool sound-muffled dark. Bends at the waist and lets her hands search through black air for the bottle of milk kept curdle-free in a bucket of water.

In the light, she fills a slender cylindrical glass to the high rim and makes her return—music drawing her back—steady hand, careful of tilts and spills. But Tom, planted on his bench, fingers skipping like grasshoppers across the keys, doesn't seem to notice her standing there right next to him. She nudges his shoulder with the glass, and his right hand springs up to seize it while the left continues to pattern chords, arpeggios, bass lines. He throws his head back and takes a deep draft, throat working, until the glass is empty. Pivots his face ninety degrees in her direction and holds the glass—face, neck, Adam's apple—out toward her at the end of his fully extended arm. Miss Eliza, he says. Lait, please. She knows where this is headed, her feet fated to flux between kitchen and tongue. (Been there.) Might as well bring the whole bottle and preempt any need for orbiting.

So why doesn't she? He takes more time with the second glass, drinking and blowing melodies into the liquid at the same time. Drains the third—see, you should have brought the bottle, or made a fuss—then bites the rim in place between his teeth, the glass attached to his face like a transparent beak, both hands free to roam over the keyboard. Tom drinking milk, making an event of it.


Excerpted from Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen. Copyright © 2014 Jeffery Renard Allen. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
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